Thursday, 15 October 2020

Everything I Read in 2019

 Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel

A psychic medium travels between drab commuter towns, making money from the grieving. She really is psychic, but she doesn't tell her clients the truth about the grubby, purgatorial afterlife she's in contact with. This is a knotty, upsetting novel - heavy with the textures of suburban emptiness, full of chain pubs, faded community centres and failing relationships. And it's also nightmarish in quite a literal way - its horror feels like the specific horror of a bad dream. Its ghosts have an invasive, grotesque physicality - a blunt but effective literalisation of the protagonist's childhood traumas. About 200 pages longer than I was comfortable with, but its grinding, queasy repetition was a feature not a bug.

Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights - Jay Rayner

A collection of reviews of expensive, terrible restaurants from Rayner's guardian columns. The prose is a lot of fun, and this is an excellent portrait of misguided excess. But these would definitely work better in newspapers than as a book: reading them in bulk, you can see the repeated joke structures that would be disguised by weekly gaps. And I found that eventually, the descriptions of Very Complicated Food all blurred into one. Still, this is short, funny, and does everything it sets out to do.

Lost Empires - J.B. Priestley

A young artist takes a job as a stage magician's assistant in the dying days of variety theatre. It's a vivid, meandering portrait of a vanished world - interested in the practicalities and psychology of travelling town to town, purveying lowbrow entertainment, full of picaresque, bawdy incident, and almost totally uninterested in plot. It's worth noting that its treatment of its female characters ranges from the questionable to the deeply unpleasant. And if you're interested in Priestley, the absolutely perfect haunted house novel "Benighted" is the place to start. But as a book about a specific place at a specific time, this is strong stuff.

Too Like the Lightning - Ada Palmer

Well this is superb - rich, playful, and contantly surprising. On the surface, this is a murder mystery set in a baroque, unsettling utopian future. But it's also a pastiche of 18th century literature and a fantasy novel interested in engaging with the questions of 18th century philosophy: this is unashamedly science fiction for people with humanities degrees. Occasionally it feels somewhat unbalanced by the sheer profusion of its ideas, its inventiveness knocking the structure slightly off balance. But this is a good problem to have - it was never meant to be clean or straightforward. And it is full of delights, whether those delights come from bravura plot-twists, a charmingly enigmatic narrator, or simply the sparkling weirdness of its world.

The Famished Road - Ben Okri

Brick-thick Booker-winning magic realism about a spirit child growing up in a human body in a small African town. I assumed - from its reputation and its opening chapters - that this would be an epic novel, covering decades and spanning countries. It's quite the opposite - a precisely detailed story of a childhood, with a supernatural phantasmagoria just peeking in at the edges. Tonally, this juxtaposition of carefully-observed childhood psychology with an ever-present spirit-world felt very Studio Ghibli to me - there's a big My Neighbour Totoro energy in this. But the book also contains a cynical eloquence about the interaction between national politics and local unrest, as well as, surprisingly, some of the best fight scenes I've ever read. The protagonist's father is training to be a boxer, and the brutal physicality of his matches are reason enough to read the book.

Metamorphica - Zachary Mason

I read this while suffering from a bad cold, and the physical discomfort probably caused me to underrate it. Mason's thing is taking Greek Mythology (in this case, stories from Ovid's Metamorphosis) and playing with it, turning it inside out and rewriting it from new angles. It's all very Calvino/Borges, and there's nothing wrong with that. I preferred his "Lost Books of the Odyssey" (where he did the same trick with Homer), but maybe that's just because the idea felt fresher the first time around. I'd also recommend the notes at the back, which reveal that stories that felt like effervescent games are actually deeply researched investigations into the original texts.

Melmoth - Sarah Perry

A novel that sets itself up as a gothic pastiche, a sprawling horror story about a guilt-monster who appears throughout history. But this is actually quite a small, bleak, quiet novel. There is the sweep of history, and the odd moment of spookiness or hallucinatory weirdness, but they all feel pushed to the side. This is really a book about people forced into isolation by their pain - all its most intense moments are strictly realist. It's a slippery book, hard to remember, struggling to balance the story of the private lives of suffering introverts with its more fantastical elements.

What is not yours is not yours - Helen Oyeyemi

Fantasy short stories, beautifully and intensely written, with weird fractal structures. Often, you'll be reading about a bizarre happening, before realising you were only witnessing the life of a side character to the main event, or you were in a frame story and are about to be spiralled off into something much stranger. It's richly disorientating - not helped by the way characters and locations spill from one story to another: there are no discrete units here, narrative spills out of narrative. The stories themselves are dreamlike - all puppet schools, hidden libraries, doors that will not close unless they are locked. They are also, usually, queer love stories of one kind or another. It's a book that lets you rest in the inexplicable.

The Long Take - Robin Robertson

A book-length film-noir poem, following a World War Two veteran through a monochrome America. It's interested in cinema, and poverty, and is at its best when simply describing cities in grand flights of excitable language. As a description of a place and time, it's vivid. As a whole, though, it didn't click with me - as either a work about a character, or a story, or an exploration of ideas, or simply as an place to hang around with Good Words. I couldn't find a way in.

Electric State - Simon Stalenhag

There's a story here, about a road-trip across a post-apocalyptic America. And it's a nicely managed story, with clear hooky stakes, well placed twists, and some pleasingly effective nastiness. But that's not the point - Stalenhag is a painter, and the story is a frame for his visual art. Its most effective moments come at the end, when the prose cuts out completely, and the pictures take over. It often feels like the story is an excuse to show pictures of something extraordinary, but that's not always a problem. The world of the novel is an alternative universe where the aesthetics of 1990s technology are dominant - all chunky white plastic, brightly coloured shapes and heavy wires. It looks amazing, desolate, and like nothing else.

Veniss Underground - Jeff Vandermeer

Early Vandermeer - not as ambitious (formally or politically) as his Southern Reach trilogy, but bursting with all sorts of weird fun. A night journey into a cyberpunk hell, a retelling of the Orpheus myth, but with all sorts of genetically engineered monstrosities - this is a book that uses a science fiction lexis to build a big mythy fantasy, more interested in imagery than internal consistency. The urban, decadent body-horror aesthetic makes it an absolutely typical example of the "New Weird" movement (Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" was only three years before, this is absolutely working from the same playbook). One odd complaint - the current edition of the book from Pan Macmillan contains an unfinished short story set in the same world at the end. However, it doesn't clearly mark where the novel ends and the story begins - so I didn't realise that the book was over until an author's note arrived commenting on the story.

Space Chantey - R.A. Lafferty

Homer's Odyssey - in space! With jokes! Lafferty's thing was merging Science Fiction with the forms of Irish traditional tall tales. This is a big, silly, rollicking thing, with a self-consciously arch prose style - all its brawling space adventurers are kept at an ironic distance. It's completely shallow, and Stanislaw Lem (especially in the Cyberiad) is better at this sort of thing. But Space Chantey everything you'd hope for from a book with its title.

Fourth Mansions - R.A. Lafferty

Now this is a weird one. Like Space Chantey it's an SF/fantasy/tall tale hybrid, with a self-consciously arch and witty prose style. Unlike Space Chantey it's... a conspiratorial psychedelic Catholic allegory? Maybe? The plot is extremely hard to describe, but at its root is about a journalist investigating a number of secret societies, who may be fundamental constants in the unverse. A whole bunch of identity warping and body hopping ensues. The whole thing feels enormously 1960s, and is a fascinating curiosity, but is not necessarily a great novel in its own right.

Blonde - Joyce Carol Oates

I've read, and loved, a bunch of Oates. Mostly short stories, but also her magnificent horror/historical novel The Accursed. I thought I had better try some of her realism, but if I was attempting to avoid Gothic Melodrama, a fictionalised biography of Marilyn Monroe was probably the wrong place to look. It's a huge, sprawling, epic thing - Dickensian in its enormous scope, its heightened reality, its propulsive narrative drive. Oates' conceit is that Monroe's life was a mirror for all of 20th Century America: poverty, glamour, low culture and high literature, confused religiosity, sexual hypocrisy, and the highest political offices. It swings gracefully between brutal realism and highly stylised surreality. It's also exhausting and inconsistent. There's evidence that the real Monroe was more knowing and sophisticated that the savant-like innocent of Oates novel, but you don't read this book as a biography of Monroe - it's much more ambitious than that.

Shakespeare's Restless World - Neil MacGregor

From the author of "A History of the World in 100 Ojects", this has a similar conceit. Based on a radio series, each of the short chapters looks at a single object, historically and geographically adjacent to Shakespeare, and spins out an exploration of the chunks of history within it. It also links the objects to Shakespeare's writing, using the plays as historical sources in smart, unforced ways. It's bitty, and the chapters don't necessary build to a coherent whole (a legacy, perhaps, of its radio background) but it's illuminating, and goes down very smoothly.

Spring - Ali Smith

The third - and best so far - of Ali Smith's quartet of novels about modern England. This is urgently political writing, and its liquid prose perfectly balances anger and warm character-driven storytelling. While previous books in the series could sometimes set up characters as mouthpieces for sets of opinions, the handling is more subtle here: it digs deep by simply describing the workings of immigrant detention centres, and the lives of people imprisoned or working there. I can imagine that not all readers will be able to suspend disbelief at the wise-beyond-her-years child with apparent magical powers, but I think the fuzzy mysticism of that plotline works as a counterpoint to the bleakness. As with all of these books, the opening pages are an invigorating tour-de-force, magnificently furious about the state of Britain's discourse, and worth reading in a bookshop even if you've no interest in the rest of the novel.

The Templars - Dan Jones

An expansive piece of pop-history, and good at explaining all the ways in which the Knights Templar were *extremely weird* - deeply devout, stubbornly anti-intellectual, obscenely wealthy, very much into violence. When it has a good story to tell (especially the order's formation and fall), this is excellent, propulsive stuff. The problem is that much of the time the story of the Templars is quite a dull one - a repetitive series of desert battles where territory is gained and then quickly lost again. This is a long book, and there's only so much I can care about troop movements.

Ghost Story - Peter Straub

An attempt to mash up the commercial horror of the 1970s with the sensibilities of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories: a group of elderly men regularly meet to tell spooky tales from their pasts, but the supernatural forces they remember are coming back to get them. There's some excellent extended sequences - long, atmospheric sections that would work well separated out as short stories. There's also a serious, Middlemarch-y attempt to define and explore the character of a town, which helps drive the stakes when the bodies start hitting the floor. But overall I don't think the novel works - it's a baggy, meandering thing, the nature of the threat isn't sufficiently well defined (either in terms of its in-fiction powers, or in terms of what it symbolises), and there's a nasty strain of misogyny to its final, predictable, revelations.

Madame Zero - Sarah Hall

A perfectly calibrated book of short stories. There's fantasy and SF in here (a man whose wife transforms into a fox, a dystopian future where abortion is illegal) but mostly this is literary realism, circling around themes of the distorted ways we understand each other's psychologies, and especially the ways male viewpoints distort women. The strongest story is "Evie", an exquisitely disturbing piece of psychological horror about a man whose wife is becoming increasingly libidinous: it weaponises its eroticism in impressively nasty, clever ways.

The Thirteen Clocks - James Thurber

A perfect children's book - in many ways its rotten fairy-tale gothic reads like Gormenghast-for-the-under-tens. The language is astounding - full of puns and poetry, breaking in and out of rhyme, dancing across all sorts of formal and metafictional tricks. The Ronald Searle illustrations are also amazing - wild and gloomy and scratchy. I wish I'd read it when I was about seven, when all the literary mechanics would have been able to fall into the background, and the book could have become a world.

The Wonderful O - James Thurber

A piratical villain arrives on an island and bans the natives from using any objects or concepts that contain the letter O. What you get, then, is oulipo for kids. Musch of this is a game, a huge tumbling catalogue of all the jokes you can make about words that do or don't contain certain letters. And yes, there's an allegory here, about colonialism and oppressive governments, but the focus is always on linguistic exuberance. The Thirteen Clocks is better, but this is cleverer.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It - Jessie Greengrass

Precise, finely crafted short stories, less interested in incident, or character, or ideas, than they are in recording the movements of their narrators' thoughts. The varied settings of the stories (a modern office, a nineteenth century sea-voyage, a dystopian future) become faintly irrelevant, blank surfaces on which to project the movements of imaginary minds; often the stories slip towards essays instead of narratives. Which is perfectly alright, especially given the pleasures of the intricate and careful prose, or the sharp - often uncomfortable - play of ideas. But I wouldn't expect anything gripping.

Peril at End House - Agatha Christie

The second Poirot I've read (my wife is a serious fan, so I feel its important to explore), this is further evidence for my instinct that Christie is extremely good at something I have no interest in. This is a puzzle, really - the plot a mechanism for dispensing clues, and most of the characters are simply pieces on a board. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had a bunch of formal inventiveness and a real sense of a living community - this lacks that. It is, however, a very satisfying machine. And it's not without charm - the friendship between Poirot and Hastings is lovely - two men who find each other ridiculous, both of whom are correct. It's a shame that in the end the book leaves a bad taste in the mouth - its final line is an antisemitic joke.

The Book of Ptath - A.E. Van Vogt

A pile of rubbish, but an extremely *odd* pile of rubbish. 1940s pulp SF by an author who used to be extremely popular but is now (deservedly?) forgotten. This is about a World War II tank commander whose mind is projected into the body of a giant god, millions of years in the future, and who needs to fight to re-conquer a desert empire currently controlled by his evil psychic wife. Van Vogt used to base his novels on his dreams, and it shows. For all its attempts at weird grandeur, this is unfocused, far too short to make much sense (conquering the world in fewer than 180 pages) and full of the kind of nonsense words that people who don't like fantasy think fantasy is full of.

Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison

My God, this is amazing. It's a highly-respected novel from the 1950s about racial injustice and political organising: I expected it to be Important but perhaps a little dry and worthy. Nothing of the sort - its exhilarating: furiously propulsive and alive, pulsating with raw emotional intensity, all of which it accomplishes without flinching away from subtle, bracing political thought. Heady stuff then, and often powerfully upsetting. Part of its effectiveness comes from the fact that while its plot is the stuff of serious literary realism (a young black intellectual is kicked out of college and moves to New York, where he joins the communist party and eventually becomes disillusioned from it), the execution is often much weirder, skewing just a few degrees away from realism and into the realms of the allegorical or surreal. In the first chapter, for instance, the protagonist is living in a room full of hundreds of lightbulbs using power stolen from the electrical grid. This faint warping of the world pushes the book into an angry, passionate fantasia that switches between journalistic exploration and folk-tale purity at will.

In Patagonia - Bruce Chatwin

Literary travel journalism - Chatwin wanders round Argentina, visiting people and places, regularly digressing into anecdotes about history, or his own life. It's very well written, and there are number of fascinating stories and vivid images. But this is such a meandering, aimless book - short chapters arriving and dispersing like half-formed thoughts. Embarrassingly it kept putting me to sleep, even in public places. Which isn't to say it's boring - it's not at all boring - it's just that its rhythms are soporific.

Ways of Seeing - John Berger

Counterintuitive marxist art-criticism from the 1970s, and whether that sounds fun or hellish will determine how much you enjoy this book. It's refreshingly grumpy, uninterested in transcendence or beauty and instead seeing masterpieces as commercial products: oil paintings are simply status symbols, nudes remove humanity and replace women with objects of male desire. The arguments are lucid and readable, even when they start getting technical, although the wordless chapters consisting solely of images (supposedly making essayistic arguments) are sometimes too oblique to be useful. All its elegant irritability about what art means when art can be instantly shared and reproduced makes you wonder how much more bristly the book would have been if it was written in the age of the internet.

The Music of Chance - Paul Auster

I've read quite a bit of Auster now, and this is comfortably one of my favourites of his. It's a novel about self-destruction, asceticism, gambling, responsibility. It is, I think, an allegory for what it means to work under capitalism. It has a sleek, precise almost folk-tale-ish plot (at its core: a man driving endlessly across America meets a young genius-level poker-player; together they plan to win big money off two reclusive millionaires). It is fiendishly clever, full of all sorts of mirrors and patterns. A blurb quote describes it as a mix between Beckett and the Brothers Grimm, which is in many ways exactly right, but also doesn't capture what the book feels like. Because this also extremely good fun: Auster is so good at making complicated books go down smoothly, at setting up high stakes, at the textures of living, that this becomes marvellously entertaining stuff.

Pastoralia - George Saunders

Saunders' "Lincoln in the Bardo" is one of my favourite novels, but I've never had as strong a reaction to his (much-loved) short fiction. It's reminiscent of Vonnegut - abrasive, SF-adjacent, deeply moral, a light comic ease covering deep despair. The stories often have simple cores (a dystopian theme-park where actors live as cavemen, a self-help seminar advocating complete selfishness, a kindly old woman coming back from the dead as a decomposing id-monster) and spin those cores off into explorations of mortality, or the casual cruelty of everyday life. Recommended for fans of good jokes and sadness.

The Book of Swords vol 1 - ed. Gardner Dozois

I was in an English-language bookshop in Barcelona, with a fifteen hour coach journey ahead of me, and I thought "I just want some pulp". So this was ideal - a group of stories by contemporary commercial fantasy writers, where swords always play a central role. The best of them know that if you've picked up a book like this, you want some fighting and witticisms. So you get Walter Jon Williams, with a swashbuckling lawyer solving crimes in alternate-universe Elizabethan England, or Garth Nix doing a supremely inventive, densely characterised demon hunt in the snow. There's a nice, tightly circular story about blacksmithing and duelling techniques from K.J. Parker, and a grim, emotionally brutal medieval zombie story from Robin Hobb. At their worst, though these can feel a bit like D&D scenarios written up by someone with a thesaurus. Still, it's exactly what I wanted at the time.

The Magic Toyshop - Angela Carter

The third Carter I've read, and the first I've really loved (The Bloody Chamber was sparkling but felt a bit like a series of excercises - I probably need to re-read it; Wise Children is an amazing piece of work, but its exuberance gets wearing). On one level, this is a coming of age story, about a girl from a wealthy background having to live with a poor family under a monstrous patriarch, and as a piece of straightforward storytelling it is very effective. But there's much more going on here: a weird out-of-time aesthetic, occasional breaches of reality, magnificent prose, all sorts unnerving sexual symbolism. Without being a supernatural novel, it constantly feels like one. Also, good writing about folk music, which always bumps a book up in my estimation.

The Wine Dark Sea - Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman is almost always great: he's a writer of short fiction who works in the M.R. James-y tradition of the English ghost story. But Aickman's stuff is considerably more oblique and inexplicable than other writers in the genre, impossible things lurking just out of sight, and with the reader never given quite enough clues to decipher what is really going on. I'm a fan, but I don't think this is necessarily the place to start - "Dark Entries" is a more consistent and accessible collection. Sometimes the prose can feel a little stodgy, but this is always thoughtful and serious work: it's absolutely worth the effort for stories like "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen", about an addiction to a voice on the other end of the telephone, or the title story, which blends greek mythology with cosmic weirdness.

Indoctrinaire - Christopher Priest

Priest's first novel - it's an interesting experiment with some arresting moments, but never really flies. A researcher is strongarmed into a government mission, investigating a hidden facility in the Amazon rainforest. The frame is straightforward science fiction, but the mission itself is an absurdist, kafkaesque fantasy full of dreamlike imagery of architecture merging with human forms, and behaviour that doesn't attempt to make sense. Some late, perfunctory developments attempt to explain the weirdness, but they don't really stick: a more confident novel wouldn't have bothered with the rationale. Priest gets better later, but as a cryptic mood-piece this is alright.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman - Angela Carter

OK, so yes, this is amazing: it still needs a few more months to settle, but at the moment I'd put it alongside The Man Who Was Thursday, the Gomenghast books, and The Book of the New Sun as one of the best examples of what fantasy literature is *for*. The prose is astounding; the slippery, vivid worldbuilding is the perfect counter-argument to Tolkeinesque maps-and-languages; it's dense with countless ideas and implications. But this recommendation comes with a caveat: this probably beats Naked Lunch for title of "filthiest book I've ever read". During the protagonist's picaresque journey to defeat a scientist who has invaded his home-city with hallucinations, there are sexual encounters that break every possible taboo. It's a book full of violence, rape, paedophilia and bestiality. This isn't pornography - there's not, I think, any attempt to arouse the reader, and it's less about sex than about how sex is written about and thought about. But the book is sometimes sickening, and sometimes ridiculous - in both cases deliberately. You'll know if this is something you're ok with.

How to Be a Public Author - Francis Plug

Francis Plug is a pseudonym for Paul Ewen. Paul Ewen really *did* go to a lot of talks by booker-award winning novelists, and get his books signed "To Francis Plug". This book then imagines what those talks would have been like from the point of view of a chaotic, drunken force of nature, who hallucinates Julian Barnes levitating, and spreads rumours of the vicious murder of Ruth Rendell, all while apparently writing some sort of gonzo self-help guide. This is, as you've probably noticed, a really difficult book to describe - but it *is* extremely funny - on one level a satire of the whole idea of elite literary society, and on another a bizarre plunge into the mind of an extremely strange man.

The Book of Magic vol 2 - ed. Gardner Dozois

More pulp from the bookshop in Barcelona - this time a bunch of short stories about wizards written by contemporary commercial fantasy writers. More consistently good than The Book of Swords Vol 1, possibly because a wider variety of stories that can be told about wizards than can be told about swords. Highlights include George R. R. Martin's soupy gothic about a group of strangers gathered together in a mysterious roadside inn, and Scott Lynch's space fantasy about the sentient planet-sized stronghold of a dead sorcerer. There's not much rubbish here: most of it is airy, undemanding and inventive.

Rotherweird - Andrew Caldecott

This is pretty bad. A schoolteacher takes a job in a secretive town where there's magic, and everyone's a genius, and everything's sort of old-fashioned, and there are doorways into a sort of psychedelic otherworld, but an evil landowner has arrived and wants to mess things up. The prose is stodgy, there's no concrete sense of place (the eponymous town is odd but textureless) and it feels like the author's only real encounter with fantasy has been Harry Potter, which is a distractingly visible influence. When the twists start heating up and ancient secrets get revealed, everything descends into borderline incoherence. A book like this needs pace, warmth, tension, or intrigue - this lacks the lot. It's baffling how this got such a shiny production job and a good blurb quote from Hilary Mantel.

Everything and More - David Foster Wallace

And this completes my quest to read all of David Foster Wallace in my twenties. He remains (probably?) my favourite writer: the only writer whose fiction made me cry as an adult. Also, his prose style is wonderful, a rhythmic blend of the slangy and the literary. This, however, is *not* the place to start. Go in with Consider the Lobster, or Girl With Curious Hair, or even Infinite Jest if you're feeling brave. They're all amazing. Everything and More, unfortunately, is not amazing. It's a book about the mathematics of infinity. When it first came out, it wasn't well reviewed: people without STEM backgrounds found it hard to follow, people with STEM backgrounds pointed out that it was quite often wrong. There are a lot of equations. I reckon I understood about 60% of it. Still, for one last chance to inhale that prose style, it was worth it.

Die Vol 1 - Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans

I first got to know Gillen's work when he was a videogames critic, and his comics work is most interesting when it functions as much as criticism as narrative. Here, we have the story of a group of middle-aged people trapped in the world of the dungeons-and-dragons-esque game they played as teenagers. The atmosphere is bleak and gothy, the art is sharp and full of grandeur. But really, this is a vehicle for exploring ideas about how fantasy and RPGs work: what do rigid rules do to a story? Can game mechanics cheapen or pervert emotional truth? What are the implications of games that let people play as characters with genders different to their own? And what does it mean that so much of modern "nerd-culture" is riffing on a 1950s novel written by a traumatised veteran of the First World War? The storytelling falls away outside of these questions, which isn't a bad thing when they're addressed so thoughtfully. And the essays at the back about how and why the whole thing was constructed are easily as entertaining as the rest of the book.

The Other Place and Other Stories - J.B Priestley

A collection of supernatural short stories, these are very readable, sturdily constructed, and usually pretty throwaway. Often, they describe a shift of perception: characters suddenly start seeing everything through a wonderful or horrible lens: maybe there are monsters everywhere, or a conspiracy is working against you, or there are giant statues from the future all over town, or you are suddenly in the past. The two timeslip stories in the book, Night Sequence and Looking After the Strange Girl, are probably the strongest, both melancholy and uncanny.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid

A superb novel. In a cafe in Pakistan, a man tells the story of his life to a stranger: how he studied at an elite American university and worked for an elite American financial institution, before returning to his home country. But there's something not quite right about the meeting - and it's clear neither the teller or the listener are exactly as they appear. As a political novel, this is subtle and bracing: exploring America after 9/11 and how the decisions of powerful people and institutions interact with daily life. As a human story, it's satisfying and psychologically rich. But my favourite thing about it is its narrator - full of wit and charm, aware of how much smarter he is than his listener, and dangerously untrustworthy. My wife recommended this to me, and she basically has a 100% hit rate with recommendations.

The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye - Jonathan Lethem

Dark 1990s Science-Fiction stories, by a writer who is clearly stretching at the edges of the genre and preparing himself to jump into more mainstream literary-fiction. The quality is variable: some of them are functional but familiar reworkings of SF tropes and themes. but the best three are strikingly impressive and horrible and intense. "Five Fucks" is about addictive reality-warping sex in a universe that is constantly degrading and cheapening itself. "The Hardened Criminals" is about a prison where still-alive convicts are turned into bricks in the walls. And both are pretty full-on, but neither compares to "The Happy Man", about a character whose soul regularly migrates between his body on Earth and a particularly disturbing Hell: it manages to fit more upsetting ideas into forty pages than most writers do in their whole careers. A recommendation, then, but go in prepared.

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

More impressive than it is lovable, but undeniably impressive. This books describes a century in the life of a fictional Colombian town, merging the mundane, the fantastical and the melodramatic. Multiple generations of characters have the same name, and their lives seem to repeat the stories of their ancestors, all of which leads to something extremely structurally and philosophically sophisticated: an interlocking jewelled pattern of narratives, where the pattern, not the individual stories, reveals the book's ideas about time, family, and the history of Latin America. It's all enormously clever, but rarely moving or gripping, at least until a thunderously beautiful final few pages.

This is How You Lose the Time War - Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A delight. A romance written in letters between two women on opposite sides of a war: they're both highly-skilled time-travelling soldier-assassins dedicated to warping history so that their culture becomes dominant in the deep future. As they fight to undermine each other's work, they realise they're the only people who understand each other, and it's enormously sweet and lovely, but also tense - the stakes are clearly set up so that it seems almost impossible that this could be anything other than tragic. If you're familiar with time travel in pop culture, you'll guess where a lot of the book is going, but this doesn't blunt the impact of its big moments. It's also a formally interesting piece of work - the two writers were each in charge of a different character, and wrote and exchanged the letters in order, so what you're reading is the result of an improvised, exploratory game. You can feel each writer's excitement at the other's invention.

Unholy Land - Lavie Tidhar

Unholy Land starts off as a noir murder-mystery set in an alternate universe where the Jewish State was founded in East Africa, not the Middle East. It soon becomes very much *not* that - the murder is solved by the end of the novel, but by then much bigger ideas have arisen. It stops being a book set in a particular imaginary Jewish state, and becomes a book about the *idea* of a Jewish state, and all of the real, imagined, possible and impossible versions of the Jewish state that have appeared throughout fiction. It also becomes a metactictional novel about how SF functions, about the ways in which alternative history novels are and aren't useful vehicles for political thought. I found this patchily written and structurally unsteady, but the richness of its ideas more than made up for it.

Under the Pendulum Sun - Jeanette Ng

A gothic novel about Victorian missionaries in fairyland. Wonderful, unsettling stuff. The setting is rich - fairyland is magnificent (vast wicker whales tunnel under the surface, queen Mab's court is grand and masked and alien) but is also a crumbling stage set, a cheap fake where nothing is natural and nothing has history. The melodramatic psychology of the missionaries is also well pitched - all repressed surfaces warring against fervid desires. I assumed that this would be a postcolonial critique of Victorian imperialism, but it's not really interested in exploring those ideas - fairyland ends up far stranger and more dangerous than anything the British Empire could throw at it. It's more interested in being a horror-pastiche of Bronte-adjacent novels, and in taking its theology seriously. I have no idea about the religious beliefs of the author, but in some ways this reminds me of CS Lewis - a fantasia on Christian themes, and an allegory for sin and redemption.

Chess - Stefan Zweig

A perfect novella from 1941. It begins on an ocean liner, where the narrator realises that one of his fellow passengers is a savant-like chess champion. From that point it extends outwards - on one level it's a precise, witty story, with a neatness that defies realism. But then it becomes urgently, despairingly political, all its cultivated elegance collapsing into a howl. The smooth, graceful prose (translated by Asterix-genius Anthea Bell!), and the balance between visible artifice and painful realism reminded me of Paul Auster. Also, it's extremely good at the nature of boardgames: the weird halfway point they occupy between art and science, the psychology of victory when winning is meaningless.

I Feel Machine - Various Writers

A collection of six brief science-fiction comics about the ways people and technology interact. A lot of it feels scrappy, experimental, playful, full of gaps and ambiguities. There's some great stuff in here - Shaun Tan's "Here I Am" is about a human child raised in a bizarre but deeply loving alien world, and it is full of amazing visual invention. Erik Svetoft provides a highly effective story as well: a shadowy body-horror heist, where quiet, rubbery figures plug themselves in and out of computers. It's not all good - the final story by Krent Able leaves a bad taste in the mouth: cheap and nasty shock-horror where kids addicted to their phones brutally murder their parents while being mind-controlled by some sort of oily Freudian nightmare beast. It's gross and stupid and casts a pall over the rest of the book.

Embassytown - China Mieville

A novel about human colonists on a planet where the indigenous aliens have a particularly strange language (it is biologically impossible for them to lie, for instance, but the weirdness goes much deeper than that). Dogmatism, petty bureaucratic infighting and greed eventually lead to a zombie-apocalypse. It's tense and stressful, dense with spiky ideas, and Mieville has great fun with his scenery, a whole city built from gloopy infected biotech. This is, in part, a novel about linguistics and an allegory about colonialism. Second-tier Mieville (it's not in the same league as The City And The City, or The Scar), but this is still sophisticated and entertaining.

Travels with my Aunt - Graham Greene

One of my wife's favourite books, this is a knockabout comedy about a pompous, repressed bank manager who is dragged into a life of international crime by his elderly aunt. It's all very silly until it isn't: the end plays a lovely tonal trick which cloaks everything that's gone before in ambiguous darkness. When it's about anything, it's about living in a world scarred by the second world war, but mostly serious concerns are irrelevant. One note: the novel's treatment of race has aged *extremely* badly.

Hellboy Omnibus Vol 1: Seed of Destruction - Mike Mignola

What amazing art, what thin writing. This is a compilation of the first few Hellboy graphic novels. If you want to see monsters punching monsters for hundreds of pages, then it's is a reasonable option. Hellboy is a monster, his friends are usually monsters, they work for an agency that mostly hires and kills monsters. Problems they face include Rasputin, Nazis, the Undead, and some shapeless Lovecraftian things. The plots are an excuse to travel from one fight to the next. And yes, the sharply geometric high-contrast art looks amazing. But if you want the warmth and wit and detail-rich eccentricities of the two Del-Toro films, that's all missing. It's all quite dour. I've heard it gets much stranger and more experimental later on; I'm not sure if that means it gets better.

The Night Visitors - Jenn Ashworth and Richard V Hirst

I just like ghost stories, I think. This is an interesting counterpoint to "This is How You Lose the Time War" - both novellas written by two authors, in the form of letters between two women. Here, an aspirant writer gets in touch with her elderly aunt, who once wrote a bestselling and critically acclaimed novel. The younger woman wants to gather research for a book about a silent film star who was implicated in a horrible murder. Soon, things get sinister. Yes, there's a supernatural threat, but the most unnerving thing is how untrustworthy both narrators are - their motivations are unclear and each seems to be manipulating the other. Ghosts, of course, are always the sins of the past, repressed secrets, the things we try to forget: in this book the past is more frightening than the ghosts. Excellent stuff.

Mythago Wood - Robert Holdstock

This was a Big Influential fantasy novel in the 1980s but it seems to have fallen out of favour. Returning from the Second World War, our protagonist finds that the small woodland in his family's estate actually contains an infinite landscape of English myth. It's an odd book - it mostly takes place on the edge of the woods, a portal fantasy that's more about the portal than the land on the other side of it. And early investigations into the wood have a hippyish pseudoscientific feel - all the talk of ley-lines and psychic energies feeling like something you might find in a second-hand shop in Glastonbury. The politics are dated too: the one female character is literally the fantasy projection of a male character's mind, and there's something uncomfortable and unexamined about a world created from an inherited English race-memory. Still, it has its strengths: it's inventive and well written, with sturdy, literary prose that comes into its own when the book starts journeying into the forest.

Nova - Samuel R Delany

This is Prometheus in Space: the scion of a fading aristocratic family sets off on a mission to steal energy from the heart of a dying star, thereby striking a blow against the all-powerful industrialists running an increasingly large space-empire. There's a magnificently hissable villain and a thrilling finale, but this is a much stranger and denser book than it appears. It's part of the 1960s New Wave of Science Fiction, when the possibilities of 1920s modernism and the 1950s beat generation start getting folded into genre pulp. Nova bounces between time periods, registers and viewpoint characters, and is pushed forwards less by plot or character than by repeated images: characters who wear one shoe, an impossible musical instrument, the grail, an exploding star. It's no wonder that a book powered by systems of images is also deeply invested in the tarot, which appears again and again throughout the text.

The Uninvited - Dorothy Macardle

A 1940s haunted house novel from a forgotten Irish writer, this follows all the beats you'd expect. A brother and sister buy a suspiciously cheap house, the former owners left mysteriously, there are dark rumours in the local village about what really happened, subtle supernatural happenings become more intense, lives are in danger, multiple women faint, there's a wise local priest and a nasty incident involving a Ouija board. It's well crafted, and contains all the cosy autumnal spookiness you could want. Interestingly, it's structured like a detective story - no one is skeptical about the existence of the ghosts, and instead the characters focus on attempting to puzzle out what the ghosts *want*, as an attempt to remove them. The eventual solution to the mystery is clean and satisfying. Overall then, nothing you haven't seen before, but absolutely worthwhile.

The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow - Danny Denton

In a dystopian future Ireland where it never stops raining, a street kid has impregnated the daughter of a supernaturally powerful gangleader. Meanwhile, strange figures such as Mr Violence and the revolutionary arsonist St Vincent de Paul lurk in the drenched shadows. With its Dublin setting, deliberate obscurity, and constant switch between registers and genres (the novel contains plays, poems, oral folktales, dense slang, pulp SF, and high-flown Serious Literature) the Joyce influence is pretty visible. Much of the ambition drains out in the final third, though, as it condenses into a sharply focused thriller. The real strength of the book is its atmosphere: a semi-mythical, richly described city under a deluge is a great place to spend time, and the book is, I found, a lot of fun to read out loud.

The Battle of Life - Charles Dickens

My third year in a row of reading an obscure Dickens Christmas novel in December. This one is presumably a Christmas novel because of its publication date rather than its subject - it doesn't mention Christmas, though it does have a general mood of goodwill-to-all-men. It's extremely slight, a quick dash through the romantic entanglements of two sisters, one of whom has two suitors. And like most lesser Dickens novels, the plotting is contrived and it occasionally trips up into a bucket of sentimentality. Dickens is at his best when he's allowed to sprawl, and there's no sprawl here. But he's still Dickens, so you still get blindingly good prose, strong jokes, an unshakeable moral core, amazingly vivid grotesques, at least one poignant death, and A+ descriptions of the weather. 

The Three Body Problem - Cixin Liu

A Chinese SF novel from 2008, published in English in 2015, when it picked up a lot of buzz and awards. As the novel begins, we get the story of a physicist who was killed in the cultural revolution, and a present-day researcher dragged into an investigation about why prominent scientists are committing suicide. To say much more would be a spoiler - and this is a novel that is *extremely* susceptible to spoilers - much of the fun is watching the plot twist and writhe unexpectedly every forty pages or so. It does go to some pretty extraordinary places, and it's full of sinister conspiracies, complicated (but lucidly explained) physics, really interesting bits of Chinese history, hardboiled police work, and brain-melting cosmic weirdness. Occasionally the book's scale gets the better of it, the plot taking hard turn into the silly, but it never takes long to recover. It's a fast book that balances energetic bounce with serious ideas.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Books I Read in 2018

Here, then, are around 7000 words on the 53 books I finished reading in 2018. There's a fairly loose definition of "book" here, and I read a couple of comics on my iPad that I didn't get round to reviewing. But this is a pretty complete picture of the reading I did last year.

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Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for an Extraordinary Event - Nicola Pugliese
Meandering Italian magic-realism about a supernaturally intense, seemingly endless rainstorm. There's some amazing imagery here - drenched buildings crumbling like wet cardboard; coins singing to young girls. But in between these points, it's all foggy and directionless - snatched glimpses of people without motivation, caught in cycles of ennui. Maybe it's the translation, but the language is something of a dense thicket: there's a lot that needs to be hacked through, but isn't sharp enough to be worth the effort. It's difficult to make listlessness interesting, I'm not sure Pugliese manages it.

Perelandra - C.S. Lewis
The second part of Lewis' space trilogy, and a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve set on the planet Venus. When it's good it's fantastic: Lewis' merging of medieval theology with turn-of-the-century pulp science fiction leads to a bunch of weird and exciting worldbuilding. His Venus is vivid and admirably strange - vast inhabited lily-pads under a golden sky. His Satan is genuinely frightening. He can manage an action scene. But it's difficult to get over Lewis' hectoring evangelism: for all the wild imagination on display, Perelandra isn't subtle. And unlike when, for instance, Chesterton uses a thriller to mount a defence of Christianity, Lewis doesn't provide space for dissent, and regularly lets the plot grind to a halt for exegeses on the Book of Genesis or a meditations on biblical sin. The first in the trilogy, "Out of the Silent Planet", is much better.

That Hideous Strength - C.S. Lewis
The final book in Lewis' space trilogy. And again, Lewis' instinct towards polemic damages things (a lot of his politics are *uncomfortable*, to say the least). But this is such a weird, scruffy, fractured thing that it's hard not to have a good time. He's throwing everything into the pot here: social satire, Christian mysticism, SF dystopia, cosy intelligent animals, full-strength Arthuriana, campus comedy... It's tonally and structurally messy, but that's part of the joy of it. And as with Perelandra, his villains are remarkably well drawn: bland well-meaning bureaucrats twisted into madness.

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The Star Diaries - Stanislaw Lem
Polish SF short stories, written between the 50s and 70s, about a hyperconfindent scientist adventurer, travelling between eccentric planets. The stories are comic, and structured like folk-tales. When they aren't fluffy and inconsequential, they're philosophically bleak (there's an impressively horrible bit about the fate of a missionary on a planet of kind and loving aliens). A mixed bag, but when it's good it's basically Calvino-in-space. The Cyberiad, by the same author, is similar but better - wittier and more inventive - though this may just be due to a superior translation.

Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy
I wrote about this on Facebook when I finished it, and still stand by what I said then ("350 pages of florid and blood-drenched prose poetry about cowboys, with one of the most unsettling endings I've ever encountered. I've no idea if I actually liked it, but I'm probably going to spend this afternoon feeling odd and disturbed and small, so presumably it succeeded at something. I'm very much into its many, many lyrical descriptions of the stars, though.") It seems to be structured around escalating walls of violence. As soon as you get desensitised, it intensifies. An impressive, horrifying piece of work, and one that feels like it takes physical effort to crawl through. Not for everyone, then, and very possibly not for me.

Leaving the Atocha Station - Ben Lerner
A twitchy, anxious thing. A graduate student wanders around Spain, lying compulsively to everyone he meets. He's either massively out of depth or suffering terribly from imposter syndrome. The novel is essentially plotless, but this only adds to its obsessive, self-examining discomfort. It's also really funny, in a dry, bleak sort of way. Really great stuff.

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Winter - Ali Smith
An awkward family reunion in a cold, rambling house. The first sentence is a really excellent joke, and the first few pages that follow it are a joyous, musical flight of prose. What follows can feel slight, and works imperfectly (characters sometimes feel less like people than embodiments of political positions). But the slightness allows for a lightness and airy immediacy: there's something warm and redemptive among the punning, playful prose and sudden hallucinatory images.

The Accursed - Joyce Carol Oates
This is the good stuff. A sprawling gothic epic about a demon infestation in turn-of-the-century Princeton, it’s consistently propulsive and unnerving and magnificently written: deeply interested in the nature of history, in hypocrisy, in American racism. It’s also vibrant and grotesque, the precise nature of its supernatural horrors just out of reach. I’m going to have to become a full-strength Joyce Carol Oates fan (I’ve read a bunch of her short stories, they’re all great), which is an intimidating task, given how much she’s written.

Wonders will Never Cease - Robert Irwin
Literary fantasy poised exactly halfway between Borges and Moorcock. A picaresque journey through a meticulously researched Wars of the Roses (almost all of the characters were actual historical figures). There's a lot of tricksy postmodern fun with the nature of narrative, and an entertainingly genre-savvy Thomas Malory, but this is more than just game-playing. Irwin's medieval England is convincingly alien, with all the expectedly murderous politicking and the protaganist's deadpan brutality. And it regularly swerves off into glorious flights of imagination, with grotesque magic rituals, deliberate anachronism, and bizarre hallucinatory passages.

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Authority - Jeff Vandermeer
The second in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Not as good as the first volume, Annihilation, but then again what is? A sort of paranoid horror-parody of the espionage genre, with the grey offices of a clandestine organisation as a haunted house. The book is at its best when digging into all the sticky ambiguities of surveillance and mind control. The setpieces are effective and arresting, but between them the book can ramble a bit - it misses Annihilation's lean tautness, and it definitely feels like it is enjoying its own obliqueness.

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - Susan Hill
The first non-fiction I read this year. Framed as a a reminiscence into a year of the author's reading, this is actually much less focused: a loose, diaristic account of the author's passing thoughts. At its best, it's warm and perceptive, eloquently enthusiastic about the books its writer loves (and I'm grateful for it reminding me that I needed to go back and read more Raymond Chandler). But it is extremely slight, and there's something faintly irritating about its wistful romanticisation of life in village England. It tastes Brexity.

Acceptance - Jeff Vandermeer
The final book in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, and probably the weakest, though there's still much to recommend it. It's more ambitious than its predecessors, jumping between viewpoints and time-periods, and as such it doesn't have as clear a hook as "expedition into mysterious and terrifying wilderness" or "intelligence agency HQ as haunted house". There's also the difficulty of trying to bring a defined conclusion to a trilogy that has always thrived on ambiguous, unknowable dread. Still, when it works, it really works - the story of a lighthouse keeper warping into something alien just before the landscape shifts into monstrousness is particularly good.

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The Invention of Morel - Adolfo Bioy Cesares
Argentinian fantasy from 1940. Recommended to me by a friend who said it felt like a Myst-style 1990s point-and-click adventure, and yes, it really does: all empty landscapes, ambiguous architecture, and a haunted island that is also a puzzle to be solved. The "twist" is obvious to anyone familiar with the last 80 years of speculative fiction, and there's some frustratingly slow passages as the protagonist struggles to work out stuff that will be clear to most readers, but once the true nature of its setting is revealed, the book flowers out into something wonderfully strange and anxious.

Leviathan - Paul Auster
Auster plays his hits: clean, cool prose; the lives of refined and well-read men crumbling into madness; wild coincidences; strident and principled American liberalism; moonlit, off-kilter cities. I like Auster a lot, and if this isn't necessarily the place to start (The New York Trilogy and The Brooklyn Follies are both better) this is a pretty good example of his strengths. There are, shall we say, *problems* with its depiction of women. It occasionally feels like a parody of a Great Male Novelist obsessing over female bodies - and while I did wonder if this was a satire, or a deliberately foregrounded part of the protaginist's psychology, I'm not sure there's enough data there to give it the benefit of the doubt. For the most part, though, this is intense, thoughtful and moody stuff.

Inverted World - Christopher Priest
If you get the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition of this, for god's sake don't read the blurb. Tear the back cover off if you have to. Not only does it spoil an extremely spoilable plot, but it sets up expectations which the book isn't even interested in fulfilling. A shame - because this is an excellent novel, and doesn't deserve to be broken by bad marketing. It's extremely high-quality Science Fiction, taking bizarre, head-spinning concepts from maths and physics, and applying them rigorously to a society and a set of characters. We start with a young man being accepted into one of the ruling guilds of a strange, cobbled-together city where none of the inhabitants are allowed to see outside. The novel then spirals out into a sort of warped bildungsroman marked by war, colonialism and political upheaval, while still juggling all sorts of gloriously high concepts in clean, measured prose. I'm not sure the ending really works - it feels like we're being set up for a big-twist revelation that never comes - but the journey is spectacular.

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Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
I don't often read crime, mostly because I'm not very interested in plot. And Chandler *wants* you to be interested in plot - the way the threads of the novel elegantly combine, the way information is deferred or characters enter and re-enter the narrative like expertly timed punctuation. It's all very admirable. But the reason to read Chandler is the prose - his showy, hardboiled noir style is often parodied, but only because it's so distinctive. It's magnificently satisfying - like taking a warm bath of vivid cynicism. He's also *extremely* good at dialogue, cinematic and sparkling.

Under the Jaguar Sun - Italo Calvino
You know what's good? Reading Calvino at midnight, in a faintly scuzzy takeaway pizza shop, just off an absurdly beautiful Venetian street. This is an unfinished book - Calvino died while writing it, so what you get is three short stories, each based on one of the five senses: a king with supernaturally powerful hearing listening out for signs of revolution; a pair of gourmets eating their way through Mexico and beginning to flirt with cannibalism; three men from different points in history searching for women by using their sense of smell. As ever with Calvino, he's walking a tightrope between a schematic, formal rigour and wild unmoored fantasy, and he does sometimes fall off: there is the occasional sense that the book is more interested in playing games with itself than anything else. It's often great, though: playful and ambitious, gracefully spinning across strange and heady ideas.

The Fifth head of Cerberus - Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe wrote some of best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the 20th Century. His 'Book of the New Sun' quartet is a sprawling, phastasmagorical masterpiece: a propulsive quest-narrative, but also capital-L Literature, fascinated with unreliable narrators, the nature of translation,  with the slippage between symbolism and literalism. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is nowhere near as good - but it is an interesting curiosity. It contains three linked novellas, each set on a planet of shapeshifting aliens long ago colonised by humans: the central mystery of the book is whether the colonisers wiped out the natives, or the natives wiped out the colonisers, shapeshifting and taking their form. The first novella is superb, set in a gothic establishment that is part brothel, part science-lab in a New-Orleans-style spaceport: it's somber, disturbing and plays dizzying tricks with time and identity. The novellas that follow, though, are disappointing: extremely oblique, delighted with their own obscurity, and more interested in playing games with themselves than anything else. There's also something uncomfortable about how the book uses colonialism as a backdrop but barely engages with it politically.

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Espedair Street - Iain Banks
A reclusive rock star looks back over his life. It's propulsive, compulsive stuff. The sections about the protagonist's life as a music-obsessive in a deprived area of Paisley are very strong, as are the sections where he is older, living alone in a disused church, concealing his famous past from his drinking buddies. The depiction of his years of fame are weaker - curiously untextured, passing smoothly by like a magazine profile. It's a *blokey* book: full of booze, and fistfights, and nerdery about the minutiae of 1970s progressive rock, and underwritten female characters. But I had fun with it.

Fen - Daisy Johnson
It feels odd to put down my thoughts on a book written by someone I know. Thankfully Fen is *extremely* good - it's a series of tactile, painful fantasy stories set around the East Anglian fens. The prose is startling and immediate. And although the stories run on the slippery logic of folk tales and dreams, they have a sensory and psychological intensity that ensures they never risk feeling arbitrary or distant. Some of the concepts for the stories sound as if they would serve as clear-cut allegories - for obsessive love, for eating disorders, for the fear of motherhood - but in practice they are so vividly written that these direct correspondences fall away, and the stories stand only for themselves. An unreserved recommendation.

Dinner - Moira Buffini
Does the script for a play I was in count as a book I read this year? Yeah, it probably does. It's basically An Inspector Calls with swearing - a twitchily repressed upper-middle class group gather for a dinner party, a mysterious outsider arrives, surfaces are cracked, chaos ensues, something ambiguously supernatural - or at the very least grotesque - is unleashed. It's essentially a comedy, even if it's a particularly spiky and dark one. The jokes land. And when it wants to swerve into new tones, that works too - it's quite happy to be uncomfortable for long stretches, or horrifying for short ones. You're essentially spending time with characters without any verbal filters: it's not long before everyone is vocalising their least publicly appropriate thoughts. The way it shifts tones, or wheels freely from subplot to subplot, isn't to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed the chaos.

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Folk - Zoe Gilbert
A satisfying mirror to Fen, which I'd read immediately beforehand, this is also a collection of folklore-ish short stories linked by a common location: in this case a fictional British island in an unspecified pre-modern past. Some of these stories are about how life on the island is mediated through tradition and ritual, like a more compassionate, less murdery version of The Wicker Man. Some of them are explicitly fantasy stories that run on folktale logic and contain supernatural transformations. Often they slip between the two modes, looking at the effects of fantastical on a small, close-knit community. And it works hard to generate a sense of a community - characters and their family members reappearing from story to story, or the plots of some stories being visible from the corners of others. But when it's at its best it pulls of a *really* impressive trick: taking stories with the straight, tropey bones of folk-tales, telling them simply, but making them absolutely gripping.

The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson
Jackson is best known as a horror writer, but for the most part, these aren't horror stories: they're small, sharp-edged character studies. Her work in supernatural horror serves her well, though. Even when depicting nothing more unpleasant than an awkward social interaction, these stories contain a raw, jagged nub of dread.  And when they do choose to slip away from the purely realistic, they do so with such a quiet precision that you barely notice the shift. The title story is by far the most famous in the collection, but it relies on a twist that has by now been thoroughly spoiled by pop culture. Far stronger is "The Renegade", about a housewife who hears her dog has been killing chickens, and discovers that her neighbours now expect her to put it down: it's hard to explain how it manages to generate such a thick, unyielding sense of wrongness.

Kindred - Octavia Butler
Involuntary, unexplained time travel repeatedly sends a modern African-American woman to a nineteenth century plantation. It uses all the conventions of the cosy timeslip novel, and turns them brutal. Despite the harrowing subject matter it reads very quickly and smoothly. Which isn't to say it takes its subject lightly: it's extremely good at the psychology of slavery - the way that a constant atmosphere of violence and degradation can warp and break a mind, how being surrounded by dehumanisation changes both slaves and slaveowners.

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Wise Children - Angela Carter
A box of pyrotechnics - sometimes dazzling, sometimes exhausting, often both. It's the story of twin sisters - music hall performers in a family of actors - and it is rich with the messy texture of the theatrical world: tawdry and grotesque and pompous, but also full of grandeur and delight. It's full of flash: bursts of surrealism, all sorts of intertextual play with Shakespeare, bawdy set pieces, constantly surprising language. It's a book about the joy of perfomance, and it demonstrates this by being a joyful performance. But it does feel like the sort of book that'll give you a hangover.

SPQR - Mary Beard
I'm really bad at reading history. I lose concentration, and what I've read tends to slip out of my head only moments after it goes in. I didn't have any problems, though, with this. Beard is so fascinated by the Romans, and so enthusiastic about sharing this fascination, that not a page of this is dry. Even when its plunging deep into the academic detail of *how* we know what we know, it's fascinating. And whenever it debunks fun myths about the Romans (several of the emperors probably weren't as debauched as they were made out to be), it usually replaces them with something much stranger. It's a book full of stories, mapping an alien world.

The Dispossessed - Ursula K Le Guin
Le Guin's work is extremely sensitive to the way environment affects society and the way society shapes people - these instincts found in the smallest details of The Dispossessed: see, for instance, the way a man from a planet without any animals large enough to farm is disturbed by the sight of a leather chair. The plot of this book should be schematic, didactic - a scientist from a planet with an anarchist collective government visits a planet governed by capitalist nation states. It's a book designed less for narrative than to explore structures for organising societies. But the sense of place is so rich, detailed and convincing that this feels less like a thought experiment and more like a journey through real worlds. The last ten pages, especially, are wonderful.

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All the Devils are here - David Seabrook
An odd, disturbing work of non-fiction. Seabrook meanders between various decaying coastal towns in Kent, telling stories from their histories: of grubby sex and desperate tourist attractions, of murderers, madmen, and cells of fascist sympathisers. There's a strange sense that Seabrook is *involved* somehow, that all the weight of history has affected and interacted with him in some ill-defined way. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's fascinating. But by the end, this seems less like a travel book, or a history book, than a seedy, unsettled dream.

Paper Girls Vol 1 - Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
A comic - a group of teenage girls in the 1980s end up caught in the middle of a bizarre, science-fictional war. It's super-light - zapping from setpiece to setpiece in a comfortably nostalgic US town: I reckon I ran through the whole thing in less than an hour, and I wasn't deliberately rushing it. But if you're comfortable with the lack of substance, it does what it sets out to do - clarifying its (witty, likeable) characters quickly. It's at its best when exploding with gonzo visual weirdness, which it does regularly. Its opening - a depiction of a nightmare, is funny and horrible and particularly strong.

The Invisibles Vol 1: Say You Want a Revolution - Grant Morrison
Another comic, and one that hasn't aged well. Where there's a plot (and for the most part it's hardly relevant), it involves a teenage delinquent joining a gang of counter-cultural occultists, who are working to free the world from the controlling forces of order. The comic is straining with all its might to let you know that it's Not For Kids - full of weird sex, weird violence, weird drugs, and continually dropping clanging literary references. It's a callous book, and I suspect its love of conspiracy theory feels far more tiresome now than it did on its publication 20 years ago. But look - it's not boring. There's plenty of flashy, striking images, and unpredictable (if often incoherent) turns in the plotting. Just don't expect to come out feeling satisfied.

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Red Thread - Charlotte Higgins
A history of mazes. Or at least, it's a history of mazes *most* of the time. It keeps running off into areas barely relevant to mazes - snatches of art history, classical literature, autobiography, occasional experiments with style and genre. It is - aha! - structured like a maze. Which is almost a shame, because the sections directly about mazes are usually the best. But as long as you're willing to surrender to the author's whims, the whole thing is engrossing.

Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco
The weirdest thing about Foucault's Pendulum is that it feels like an erudite literary parody of a type of pulp that didn't start until years after its release: there's a weird resemblance to all those thrillers about academics uncovering dangerous conspiracies using historical books and artefacts (the National Treasure films, the Broken Sword videogames, the collected works of Dan Brown). And this makes sense: beneath the sprawl and learning and thick layers of ironic distance, there's a damn good adventure story hiding in here, about small-time publishers caught in a cult's search for an (imaginary?) templar superweapon. It's the part of the book that's most tempting to imitate. But describing the plot doesn't give you much sense of what it feels like to read Foucault's pendulum - it's a dusty book, interested mostly in other books. It seems to encourage scan-reading - large passages describe dry swathes of history, with the joke being how irrelevant they are. And its most successful features spark off in all sorts of unexpected directions: a very funny parody of the vanity publishing industry, a playful section about the the (then-new) concept of the word processor, an atmosphere of post-war Italian political melancholy, vague hints of the supernatural peeking around the corners...

Benighted - J.B. Priestley
My god this is an amazing book, and somehow almost completely forgotten. If you take anything from my pointless quest to record everything I read this year, it's that you should hunt this down. The plot is generic - travellers driving through a rainstorm are unable to continue, and take refuge in an old, dark house. But the execution is perfect: unnerving, surprisingly compassionate, and with the best descriptions of weather you can get outside of Dickens. The structure may be pulpy, but its depiction of flawed, decent people, haunted by their pasts and grasping for solace in the darkness, is properly moving. The only Priestley I knew was An Inspector Calls. This is far beyond that.

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The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
After Benighted, I felt the need to see if I had any other haunted house stuff lying about - and this, too, was superb. Like Benighted, the plot is generic: an academic pays some young, potentially psychic volunteers to stay in a notoriously haunted mansion for a month. But what follows is extremely unnerving - Jackson is very good at creating a threatening environment - subtly diseased architecture and decor, full of malicious intent. She's also excellent at creating affectionate camaraderie between her characters and then subjecting them to slow, paranoid degradation: it's a book that weaponises its own warmth.

Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie
Two British Muslim sisters, living with the knowledge that their father was a Jihadi and their brother has followed in his footsteps. This sort of plainly told realism is (as you can probably tell by now) a fair way out of my wheelhouse, and I struggled a bit with the prosaic domesticity of the book's earliest sections (very much my fault not the novel's). But the thing that shone through was how extraordinarily empathetic it was towards everyone the narrative touches, no matter how appalling their decisions or actions have been.

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Everything Under - Daisy Johnson
So many of the canonical Oxford Novels follow children, or childlike characters, leaving mundane worlds, and entering magical otherworlds with limited access points, isolated from their previous lives, learning the rules and languages of their new environments and facing risks they couldn't previously imagine. Think of Lewis, Pullman, Tolkein, Carroll. Something that seems under-discussed about Everything Under is the way that it's a dark mirror to this sort of story. It's an Oxford novel - the city is named, but its urban centre is ghostly, barely described. Far more vivid is the otherworld that surrounds it - the rotting, isolated canals, infected by prophecies, monsters and violence, and shunning the rules that bind the rest of civilisation together. And much of the plot revolves around a child who escapes mundanity and enters this magical otherworld, becoming bound by the rules of myth. Here, though, the otherworld is shallow, damaging, and only half remembered. The monsters might not even be real, and the grand demands of myth may be nothing more than empty acts of violence. This is a shadowy novel, full of unreliable memories and shifting identities. It's a book where people use stories to structure lives which won't ever make easy sense.

Flights - Olga Tokarczuk
A Polish novel - if novel is the right word. Flights is a series of vignettes: short stories, philosophical musings, historical anecdotes, scraps of writing that glide between all three categories, delighting in blurring the boundary between fact and fiction. The vignettes circle two themes: travel, and anatomy - especially when anatomy involves preserving and examining human remains. It is all beautifully written - even when it's hard to pull the threads together, or work out what the author is trying to achieve, you can bask in the glow of the language. The lack of a clear throughline and the profusion of ideas and images mean that even though I finished the book relatively recently, I don't have a clear memory of the whole thing. But images and conversations I've encountered in everday life keep striking up memories of scenes from the book with unusual frequency.

Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft
Pulp, and perfectly serviceable pulp. A mild-mannered school teacher goes on his honeymoon to the Tower of Babel (linked only to the mythical tower only in that it is tall, and full of sinful people). He loses his wife in the crowds, and must climb through the various dangerous civilizations that live in the tower in order to find her, having picaresque adventures along the way. It's the first book in a trilogy, so don't expect an ending. And although I had moderate amounts of fun, I probably won't be going to the sequels. There's an enjoyable aesthetic - a sort of Edwardian steampunk in a vast, ancient structure in the desert. The characters are charming and the action scenes are efficient. But despite all the surface flash, it felt rather plodding - you could feel the narrative machinery heaving itself into place before each plot turn or setpiece.

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A Girl is a Half-formed Thing - Eimear McBride
Well this is upsetting and intense. It's also very, very good. It's about a girl growing up in Ireland with a brain-damaged brother, an unstable mother and a predatory uncle. It's written in fragmented, half-formed, ungrammatical sentences: this is proper modernist stream-of-consciousness stuff, and unapologetically difficult to parse. Once you tune into its wavelength, though, all this smashed-up language pulls you extremely close to the narrator's self-destructive psychology. For an experimental novel, it's surprisingly plotty - structurally, there's a straightforward (if unflinchingly emotionally brutal) book in here.

Roadside Picnic - Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Russian science fiction novel: the earth has been subject to a mysterious alien visitation, leaving a number of  dangerous areas known as "zones" where the laws of nature no longer apply. Governments attempt to seal these zones off,  studying and exploiting them, but mercenaries sneak in, brave the dangers, and steal alien artefacts for a thriving black market. Really, this seems more important for the stuff it influenced than for itself: the 1979 film adaptation, Stalker, is a much more sophisticated work, and I doubt Vandermeer's Annihilation could exist without Roadside Picnic's surreal, unknowable, somehow *conscious* wilderness. There are times when this book feels inert, and no more than functionally written. But there's a rich soup of sinister, cynical ideas in here. I also really like the title - it's evocative out of context, and frightening when explained.

The Death of King Arthur - Simon Armitage
A book-length poem from around 1400, translated into modern english. And if you want exciting descriptions of medieval battles, you're in luck: much of the book feels like a catalogue of all the cool ways you can describe someone hitting someone else with a sword. The book's main pleasure is its kinetic bloodshed: this is Arthur as a pragmatic general - we're told he's a good king, but most of what we see is him arriving in other countries and smashing them up. It's a version of the story without any of the courtly romance, folktale structures, or weird medieval Christianity that gets associated with Arthuriana, and instead replaces them with realpolitik and military tactics. There's no real interest in myth or psychology here, although Arthur's final farewell to Guinevere is poignant and understated, and there are some pleasantly grotesque dream scenes. I enjoyed it, but found it best to read in ten page bursts. Much more than that and the endless combat could become soporific and I would lose my ability to feel the impact and excitement of the language.

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White is for Witching - Helen Oyeyemi
Another haunted house - this time a boarding house in Dover, where strange, slippery things are happening. The first two thirds of the book are setup - bouncing between various points of view, slowly constructing its characters, the plotting vague and dreamlike. For most of the book, it's ambiguous whether genuinely supernatural events are occurring, or if we're watching the messy perceptions of disordered minds (almost all of the characters are grieving, two of them have been diagnosed with perception-altering mental illnesses, another spends much of the time stoned). It's comfortably readable, and magnificently well written, but it feels a little like its caught in a holding pattern. But then the final third of the novel snaps into focus - the pace rockets, the threats close in and become frightening, characters start bouncing against each other in charged, unexpected ways. It also reveals itself as an urgently political book - a smart, unsettling allegory, sharpening and repurposing the tropes of the English ghost story.

Lost Horizon - James Hilton
Popular fiction from 1933, and the novel that invented the idea of Shangri-La. A group of mismatched Westerners have their plane hijacked, and are brought to an isolated monastery in the Himalayan mountains. It's a fascinating reflection of its historical moment, suffused by a sort of weary, pre-apocalyptic melancholy: the hangover from the first world war, the shadow of another war approaching, the fading of the British Empire. And yes, given that it is a book by a comfortably well-off white british author writing in the 1930s about English imperial functionaries in Asia, its politics have aged badly. It also feels brief to the point of inconsequentiality - the ideas and narrative vanishing at the exact point they arrived. But it's a strangely effective book: an eerie vision of someone else's idea of utopia, a book about the transitory nature of peace and the inevitability of loss.

Dark Entries - Robert Aickman
A collection of six ghost stories. Or is it? Aickman is undeniably working within the tradition of the ghost story - vaguely fusty middle-class English people stumbling outside the confines of their predictable, material lives and being confronted with horrifying supernatural dangers. But the things they encounter are always much stranger, much harder to explain than mere ghosts. The reader always feels as if they have enough clues to unlock what the stories mean, what the characters are experiencing, but the answers are always *just* out of reach. Aickman is a master of the accumulation of detail - before the true horrors break out, slight elements (the size of the furniture, the pattern in a carpet, an incongruous photograph) begin to hint at (explain?) the oddness that follows. He's also an astute psychologist - even as the stories lurch into nightmare, the characters remain grounded and understandable. This is the third Aickman collection that I've read - they're all great, but I enjoyed this one the most. Not necessarily because it's the best - possibly because the sheer oddness of his work requires some getting used to. By now I'm happily speaking his language.

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A Burglar's Guide to the City - Geoff Manaugh
Non-fiction about architecture, city planning, and burglary. It's full of amazing anecdotes: it turns out that absurd, movie-style heists are a real thing. The central conceit of the book - that studying burglars and the people who work to stop them reveals all sorts of information about how cities work - is an appealing and convincing one. And I was always comfortable when the book went off on eccentric tangents, about communities of lockpicking enthusiasts, or surreal "urban survival" courses given to travelling businessmen by ex-marines. It's an overwritten book - it works extremely hard to make you care about stuff that would already interesting without the flash. But it's enjoyable and informative, and dozens of the stories it tells would make excellent films: I'm very much in favour of seeing a biopic of the rogue 19th Century architect who dressed his gang in elaborate opera costumes and built replica bank vaults in vast warehouses on the New York City Docks in order to practice his Ocean's Eleven-style scores .

The Hell-Fire Clubs - Evelyn Lord
A history of the secretive 18th Century clubs where aristocratic men were rumoured to partake in devil worship and debauchery. As is so often the case, the rumours are more fun than the likely truth: it seems the stories of satanism and dark rituals were overplayed - the clubs were much more of an excuse for the privileged classes to indulge in drink, sex, and fancy dress behind closed doors. Which does make the book a slightly repetitive account of wealthy people behaving predictably badly. But it's well-written, goes down smoothly, and does provide a clear window into a time I know very litte about.

The first fourteen of the "Penguin Moderns" series
Penguin released a set of 50 miniature books this year (each a6 sized and only around 60 pages along) showcasing various writers from its Modern Classics range. In each, you will maybe get a few short stories, or some poems, or some essays. I bought the full set and have been slowly working my way through them. It's been great - chances to see stuff from people I hadn't read before: Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail is astoundingly good, and this has been the first time I've read any Jean Rhys, Dorothy Parker or Danilo Kis, all of whom I'm sure I'll go back to. There's also interesting selections from writers I was more familiar with (Orwell, Lem, a fascinatingly odd Du Maurier story). Obviously I didn't enjoy everything: this was further confirmation that I don't like Kafka, and I don't understand at all what Gertrude Stein was doing in the extract from Tender Buttons. But the books are always brief enough to be interesting before they disappear. The highlight so far was the Ralph Ellison story "In a Strange Country", in which a black american soldier stationed in the UK, encounters a welsh voice choir. It's probably the best piece of writing about folk music I've ever seen - profound and moving and beautiful, and deeply interested in all the knotty ways that music interacts with nation and community.

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Human Acts - Han Kang
Han Kang's The Vegetarian is one of the best books I've read in the last five years: a nasty, upsetting, beautiful and ruthlessly efficient novel. Human Acts isn't in the same league, but it's successful in achieving its own names. It's about the Gwangju Uprising, a civilian massacre that occurred in South Korea in 1980. Each of its chapters focuses on a different victim of the massacre: survivors, demonstrators tortured by the government, or in one case the souls of the dead. It's pretty unrelenting: as it flickers between the day of the massacre and its aftermath in years and decades that follow, it overflows with physical and psychological pain, and fixes an unblinking eye on mountains of decaying corpses. Some sections work better than others, but as a memorial to a tradedy, or a journalistic record of an atrocity, this is a very effective novel.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie
A quick note that there's some stuff here that you might consider spoilers - and this is an *extremely* spoilable book. I'm not going to explicitly give away the ending, but I'll say some things that makes the ending easier to guess. Anyway - given that I'm marrying a Poirot obsessive next year, I thought it was a good idea to try Christie out. And I can see the appeal: she's got the knack that most decent pulp writers have for making stock characters vivid. She can generate tension when she wants to, and propels her plot at speed. Her dialogue is sharp and smart - she's particularly good at characters being rude to each other. But for most of its length, this book doing something I fundamentally don't care about: it's a game as much as a novel, carefully laying out its clues and witness statements. It provides maps of locations, or tables of everyone's stated alibis. The whole novel is a well oiled logic puzzle that asks the reader to play along. This isn't an excercise I really enjoy engaging in: to me it feels rather dry and mechanical, though I can see why other readers find it fun. And yet - the last thirty pages are *superbly* managed. It's nice to experience a famously great twist without it being spoiled in advance. I'm not into the procedural drudgework of detection, but I'm *extremely* into the rug being pulled and discovering that I'm reading a piece of devious and formally playful metafiction, especially given that the book has been sneakily hinting at this all along.

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The Book of Evidence - John Banville
A wealthy, middle-aged man who senselessly murdered a woman during a botched and underrmotivated robbery looks back over the previous few months of his life from the perspective of his prison cell. He's endlessly self-obsessed, self-justifying and self-pitying, at once attempting to explain his actions and claim a deep, unconvicing guilt for them. It's a dense novel - every page is thick with striking turns of phrase, surprising word choices, precise images and odd, angular thoughts. Sometimes this is invigorating, sometimes it's exhausting - especially given that the narrator is deliberately bad (if fascinating) company. It reminded me most of the bits of Nabokov I'd read - of the hyperverbal, deeply untrustworthy narrators of Pale Fire and Lolita.

Snow White - Donald Barthelme
Snow White lives with seven men who spend their days washing the walls of their house and looking after dubious vats of chinese baby food. She used to sleep with them, it seems, but now she ignores them, knowing that psychologically and narratively she is missing a prince. This prince, Paul, mostly just sits in his bath and considers whether he should become a monk. Later, he builds a vast surveillance complex in a bunker outside Snow White's house. It seems to be wired up to some dogs. So yes, this is absurd 1960s postmodernism, riffing on the fairy tale (or, more often, the disney film) like a wild electric jazz solo. If you ignore the fact that it barely makes sense, and appreciate its non-sequiturs, formal playfulness and stupid jokes, it's quite good fun. A minor work, though, from Barthelme, whose similarly absurd novel The King is one of the great works of 20th Century Arthuriana, and whose short story "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" is one of the smartest, funniest, and nastiest things I've ever read about the psychology of being in a close-knit group of friends.

The Cricket on the Hearth - Charles Dickens
The third of Dickens’ annual Christmas Books, and there’s a bunch of reasons why it’s fairly obscure: it’s full of all the elements that have aged worst about his writing - an excess of sentimentality and melodrama, occasional tweeness, and irritatingly perfect young women. But weak Dickens is still Dickens: there are still magnificent flights of rhetoric, excellent jokes, a thunderously evocative sense of place, and precisely drawn grotesques. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that there’s a load of his big, important books that I still haven’t read.